In essays, books, and interviews, many artists and writers have explained how their creative processes work. They can be quite different but at the core, there appears to be two schools. Let me quote two writers representing the respective schools describing their creative processes. First, Steven Pressfield from his book “The War of Art”:
“There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.”
“Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it’s the easiest to rationalize. We don’t tell ourselves, “I’m never going to write my symphony.” Instead we say, “I’m going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.”
And, Charles Bukowski from his poem entitled “so you want to be a writer?”:
“if you have to sit for hours staring at your computer screen or hunched over your typewriter searching for words, don’t do it.”
“unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don’t do it.”
[You can read the whole piece here.]
Do you notice the contrast? Pressfield has a hard time getting up, going to his computer and sitting down, because he has to fight this force he calls “Resistance”. He feels that fighting this Resistance is the hardest part of being a writer. On the other hand, Bukowski is telling us that we shouldn’t bother trying to be a writer unless our urge to write comes bursting out of us. Where is this difference coming from?
There are two persons within us all. We have our ego and our natural self. Ego is essentially a self-image; it is an idea of self as we understand it. What I call “natural self” is what we are born with, and it consists of tangible characteristics like our skin color and height as well as intangible ones like personality and talent. Which person you identify yourself with determines what your creative process is, and that is the difference we see between Pressfield and Bukowski. Pressfield identifies himself with his own ego whereas Bukowski identifies himself with his natural self.
Personally, I understand exactly what Bukowski is talking about, and I cannot relate to Pressfield. My urge to write comes bursting out of me, and I could not stop myself even if I wanted to. The idea of forcing myself to sit in front of a computer to write is entirely foreign to me. English is not my native language, so the essays I wrote in my 20s were almost unreadable. In short, I sucked really bad as a writer, and plenty of people around me let me know it too. My ego could not stand the idea of being something that I’m not even good at. I studied fine arts in school and I’m highly skilled in doing most visual things, yet I do not have the same compulsion to paint or draw. Ironically, I have an unstoppable compulsion to do what I’m not good at, which is to write. I am like one of those legally blind people who pursue painting or photography. In the end, my ego was no match for my compulsion; I have reluctantly come to accept the fact that my natural self is a writer. That is, I don’t “wannabe” a writer, but I am one.
Especially in the West, culture and nature have been at war with one another. Nature is something to be conquered, tamed, and used for our own advantage. So, when someone tells you that you cannot be a good basketball player because you are short, your ego either becomes defiant, “Oh yeah?”, or goes into submission, “True, I’ll never be good at it.” We rarely accept the reality as is. Chances are, if you play it enough, you would be a decent player, but your ego wants all or nothing.
The idea (or fantasy) that our minds can overcome any limitations our nature imposes is so powerful that there are countless novels and movies with this theme. Our kids are exposed to them constantly. “Anything is possible, if you put your mind to it” is a mantra we hear all the time. It appears that we cannot take a moderate view on this. We either have to be in a euphoric state of mind or be depressed. This is how our egos operate. These fantasies and extremities are coping mechanisms that our egos developed, and this leads to losing touch with our own natural selves. We keep fighting and negating our natural selves, until we forget who we truly are, and have to force ourselves to sit down and do something.
Our egos are also very superficial. It cares a lot about what other egos think of it. More often than not, we have natural compulsions to do things that are not culturally respected. For instance, I have a natural compulsion to analyze minute details of everything, and find inconsistencies in the arguments presented by others. In other words, I’m a natural “critic”. Unlike the word “writer” which is culturally noble and respected, “critic” has many negative connotations. So, my ego hates it, but I cannot stop myself from criticizing every inconsistency I observe. This compulsion also makes me a good “computer programmer”. Again, my ego hates this label too. I am also a natural “lawyer” because I love to argue and win, and again, my ego hates that label as well. In one business book I read, the author defined the word “talent” as this natural compulsion I’m describing here. He wrote if someone is naturally skeptical of other people, instead of criticizing him for that trait, make him an auditor. General distrust of people is not something we normally think of as a positive trait, so our immediate reaction is to correct it, criticize it, or fight it. It doesn’t occur to us to embrace it and find a productive outlet for it.
Most people have natural compulsions but they are blind to them. Some people take years or even decades to find productive outlets for their compulsions. Most people spend their whole lives denying and negating their compulsions. A lot of people love watching TV but never think to become a TV critic, or even start a blog about TV watching. A lot of men love porn, but never think to make their own porn movies or start a porn magazine. A lot of people love playing video games but never bother to learn how to create their own games. They are in constant denial of who they are because many things we have compulsions for are not culturally respected.
But, as a caution, here is a point that I want to emphasize: Just because I’m a natural “lawyer”, for instance, does not mean that I would be a successful lawyer. Chances are, I wouldn’t be. Winning in court isn’t all about being logically right. Winning the hearts of the juries is just as important if not more. In this sense, I wouldn’t be a successful lawyer. I am not a great writer either. I believe I have just reached the level of competence that most native English speakers reach in college, and I’m now 43. So, if you want to find your natural self, don’t be fooled by your competence or incompetence. You might have an unstoppable compulsion to play basketball, but you might be 5 feet tall. You might be deaf but have an uncontrollable urge to dance. If so, by all means, you should get up and dance. It’s not about whether you can be a pro, or you can be successful. It’s about being in peace with yourself, letting yourself be who you are. If you resist, you will be unhappy.
Ludwig Wittgenstein tried several times to stop doing philosophy, but he failed every time. He disposed of all the trappings of traditional philosophers, like having piles of philosophical books; instead, he had a pile of detective novels. His compulsion to do philosophy was so strong that his ego was no match for it. There was no conscious effort involved in sitting down at his desk. His natural self drove him to it. It is the exact opposite of what Pressfield describes. The struggle Wittgenstein had was with doing philosophy well. I doubt that he ever had to force himself to sit down and write. It sounds almost comical imagining him doing that. He is trying to resist what his ego wants him to be (anything other than “philosopher”) and letting his natural self be who he is. Pressfield, on the other hand, is Resisting what his natural self wants to do, and letting his ego press ahead with what it wants him to be (”writer”). Since he is going against his own nature, it’s a lot of “Resistance” he has to fight.
In my teens and early 20s, I wanted to be a “composer”. My ego still loves that label just like George Costanza loves the label “architect”. When your ego wants to be something, you are literally a “wannabe”. In my definition, you could be a world famous writer and still be a “wannabe writer”. From the descriptions of his inner struggles, I would say Steven Pressfield is a “wannabe writer” despite the fact that he is quite successful. Another wannabe writer that comes to my mind is Truman Capote. I think his true calling was a party promoter. He loved to be the center of attention and he used his talent as a writer to get the attention he craved. It’s the attention that mattered, not the writing. Later in his life, he became stuck because he didn’t have enough drive to write, yet his craving for attention persisted. He was a “wannabe” writer because he desperately wanted to be one, even though his natural self wasn’t. I would imagine that if his ego could have accepted the label “party promoter”, he would have been much happier, although again there is no guarantee that he would have been a successful party promoter. Ultimately, your natural self doesn’t care if you are successful at it or not. Only your ego does.
If you feel any “Resistance” that Pressfield describes, it’s a good sign that you are not being true to yourself. It’s probably because your natural self doesn’t really want to do what your ego wants you to do. When your natural self wants to do something (like sex), you would know. Just as Bukowski describes, when you are doing something natural, it should come out of you like a rocket. If that part is a struggle, then take his advice and “don’t do it,” because the real struggle comes after it. There are competitions for eating as much ice cream as possible, and they too struggle to win, but would they face “Resistance” whenever they eat ice cream? Just because you have a compulsion for something, does not mean that it’s easy for you to do. You struggle to do better. Professional chess players struggle to win but it does not mean that walking up to a chess board every day is a struggle for them. If you are going to be a real chess player, your uncontrollable compulsion to play chess would be taken for granted. If that part is a struggle, you would be better off finding something else to do.
This type of uncontrollable compulsion is a stereotypical quality of great “artists”. Because of this, some people rationalize it as a myth, so that they do not have to feel bad about not having such compulsions. It is not a myth. It’s true and real. The reason why you cannot see your own natural compulsion is probably because your ego does not like the cultural label attached to it. Maybe you are a natural plumber, a natural secretary, a natural accountant, a natural housekeeper, a natural waiter, or a natural critic like me. Whatever it is, don’t let your ego win. Embrace whatever you were meant to be and enjoy every moment of it while you are alive and healthy. Advocating for your ego ultimately never pays off, because you cannot take your ego to your grave.